The Novel as Hinged Mirror

  • Neil Sammells


Stoppard told Giles Gordon in 1968 that, of the countless books he had read and plays he had sat through, there were very, very few which offered an experience differing from all the other experiences to be expected from books and plays: There are very few books which seem to me to get away from what everybody else is doing. I think that a book like At Swim-Two-Birds is going to influence writers for a century.… How far back can one go?’ he wondered, ‘Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, At Swim-Two-Birds?1 Stoppard’s yardstick for measuring the value of a novel is, then, the same as he had used in Scene for assessing a play: the remark restates his preoccupation with the need to shake the reader or spectator out of his deep, detached sense of familiarity with what is set before him. The work he admires is that which, by an act of criticism, distances itself from its background; his praise of Tristram Shandy emphasises his closeness to the Formalists in this respect: Shklovsky was fascinated with the way that Sterne freed himself from the conventions of the novel by parodying them.2 Stoppard’s list of books which ‘get away from what everybody else is doing’ (and which, paradoxically, themselves become models for duplication) is also an implicit acknowledgement of the debt he owes to Flann O’Brien, whose At Swim-Two-Birds has a direct influence upon Stoppard’s only novel to date, Lord Malquist and Mr Moon (1966).


Black Cape Colour Horse Secret Knowledge Student Narrator Double Cancellation 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Interview with G. Gordon, Transatlantic Review, 29 (1968) 24.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See T. Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (1977) p. 66 andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. T. Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (1979) p. 23.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Quoted by A. Clissmann, Flann O’Brien (1975) p. 79.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    In K. O’Nolan (ed.), The Best of Myles (1977) p. 238.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    F. O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (Harmondsworth, 1967) p. 25. All subsequent references will be to this edition.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    C. Bigsby, Joe Orton (1982) p. 15.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    G O’Brien, ‘Flann O’Brien’, Cambridge Quarterly 7 (1976–7) 68.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Lord Malquist and Mr Moon (1980) p. 21.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    See interview with J. Watts, Guardian, 21 March 1973, 12.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Scene gives an interesting perspective on the closing moments of the novel. Stoppard’s review of Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot says that ‘when the bang comes it is startling to find that the device is one which has been a major inspiration in the plays of Jean Genet, namely that a man will take on the personality of his clothes.’ See Scene 20 (9 March 1963) 41.Google Scholar

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© Neil Sammells 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Neil Sammells

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